Levant is the former publisher of the Calgary-based conservative magazine the Western Standard, one of only two publications in Canada to reprint the drawings of Muhammad that sparked the Cartoon Intifada in early 2006. In the face of intense pressure from bullies and busybodies to deprive his readers of an informative account of the biggest news story in the world at the time, Levant defiantly upheld his and his fellow citizens' freedom of thought and right to free expression.
Nonetheless, the Western Standard was a tiny redoubt of sanity amid coverage of the Danish cartoons that generally ran the full gamut from obsequious to craven. In a target-rich environment stretching from Marrakech to Manchester, the Classical period of the Intoonfada — the period that consisted most prominently in righteous rioting, murder plots, and the torching of embassies — passed Levant and his magazine by.
Pusillanimous self-censorship notwithstanding, crude terrorism failed to undermine freedom of speech, and the popular enthusiasm for sustained mob violence dried up, as it was bound to do. Although the threat of assassination continues to loom in the background, the Intoonfada evolved into a Baroque period. Its primary battlefield is now the courtroom, where the forces of religious intimidation hope to use the institutions of civil law to subordinate civil law to the dictates of Islamic piety.
Some jurisdictions are more propitious for this effort than others. Here in the United States, for example, despite fears on the left of growing theocracy, explicit constitutional safeguards ensure that political speech is unrestricted. But our northern neighbor has no codified bill of rights. Instead, as a dominion of the British crown, Canada's basic liberties persisted for most of its history as common law traditions. Today, they are enumerated in a Charter qualified by a "limitation clause," and hence remain vulnerable to legal challenge in ways the the provisions of the US Bill of Rights are not. Having failed to capture a big trophy like freedom of speech in Denmark, theocratic thugs are doing their best to silence individual voices like Levant's through costly, abusive litigation.
To be sure, no legitimate civil or criminal court in Canada would grant standing to a complainant seeking to prosecute the free exercise of political speech. But an alternative judicial system that sprang up in the 1970s for a specific, narrow purpose has wildly outstripped its mandate, and afforded the forces of religious censorship the opportunity to put authors, editors, and publishers on trial.
The Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977 established "Human Rights Commissions" in the various Canadian provinces to investigate and redress racial, religious, and gender discrimination in employment, housing, and related affairs. But the nebulous language of the act — language that one of its authors, Alan Borovoy, acknowledges is in dire need of clarification — allows unscrupulous individuals to proscribe any speech that offends their sensibilities. What's more, the standards of evidence and proof on offer in the Human Rights Commission tribunals are a sad parody of a recognizable justice system.
The only condition that needs to be met for a defendant to be found in violation of the Human Rights Act is that his speech is "likely to expose" the complainant to "hatred or contempt." Imagine an article on abuse of women in a cloistered religious community, or on an ethnic or sectarian war in which atrocities are committed by both sides. Any accurate reporting on such affairs obviously might catalyze hatred or contempt among ignorant readers. By that fact alone, provided someone were found to bring suit, the author of articles like these could be convicted as a human rights abuser.
Worst of all, the Human Rights Act provides for all complainants' legal fees to be paid for by the state, no matter how frivolous their claims. Defendants' legal fees, by contrast, are subsidized to the tune of zero percent, no matter how meritorious a defendant's case. In other words, attempting to suppress free speech in Canada is a risk-free investment.
Which brings us back to the case of Ezra Levant. Amid the furor of the early stages of the Intoonfada, Syed Soharwardy, a Pakistani-born imam who serves as national president of the somewhat grandiosely-named Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, quietly did his best to shut down publication of the Western Standard, and punish its publisher for transgressing the laws of a faith to which he does not subscribe.
Soharwardy's first recourse was to lobby the Calgary police to arrest Levant for the crime of printing a cartoon. When that effort proved unsuccessful, Sohawardy moved on to Plan B, a barely legible handwritten complaint against Levant and the Western Standard to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which needs to be read in full to be believed.
The human rights violations Soharwardy claims Levant perpetrated include:
- Levant calling Soharwardy "radical" during a radio interview
- Levant claiming the right to publish the Danish cartoons
- Levant "defam[ing] and insult[ing]" Soharwardy and his family by publishing the cartoons
- Levant denying that "my beloved Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the best in manners, best in etiquettes, and the most intelligent human being"
- Levant "mentally tortur[ing]" Soharwardy
For good measure, Soharwardy concludes his brief by protesting to the Alberta HRC that "the response from Calgary police" — i.e., in declining to incarcerate Levant for publishing magazine articles — "is not reasonable."
To repeat the allegation aloud is to reveal it, and the judicial practices supporting it, as a sinister farce: A man is on trial in an ostensibly free country for (a) hurting someone's feelings and (b) asserting his right to free speech. For his part, the complainant considers the two elements on a par; by his lights, subjectively-perceived offensive speech and the assertion of the right to free speech are equally egregious violations of his human rights. And rather than treat the complaint as a cry for help from a pitiable character in dire need of a lesson in civics, the institution presiding over the case subjected the defendant to a two-year-long prosecution costing him upwards of $100,000, in which the mere fact that he was accused predetermined his eventual conviction.
Or at least it would have done, if Levant had not brought a video camera with him to his interrogation and exposed the proceedings to the light of day. If a latter-day Franz Kafka were to produce a reality television show, he would have difficulty adequately capturing the fastidious, baleful bureaucratic mockery of due process at the heart of the HRC hearings.
Despite the fact that neither truthfulness nor benign intent can exculpate Levant, as Sohawardy's mere claim to having taken offense at Levant's words satisfies the tribunal's standard of proof, Levant's interrogator insists on prodding him, repeatedly, to confess just what he was up to. She does take notes, but she might as well have been doodling, since Levant is guilty in virtue of having been accused, and no answer of his can change that. But Levant will have none of it. In his opening and closing statements, he refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal to render a judgment on him, and challenges his interrogator to recommend a guilty verdict, so that the process can finally end and he can file his own suit in a real court. Levant represents himself, moreover, because the tribunal bars him from seeking counsel of his own choosing.
In the month since Levant's hearing at the HRC tribunal, his videos went viral on Youtube, and the public backlash forced Soharwardy to drop his case. He could not withdraw, however, without firing an ominous Parthian shot, averring that "Canadian society is mature enough not to absorb the messages that the cartoons sent" — as if anyone must satisfy an antiliterate blackmailing cleric of his or her maturity in order to consume literature.
But even in being vindicated, Levant lost. He lost his magazine, lost a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees, and lost hundreds of hours fighting a risible lawsuit that should have been tossed into a wastebasket after a cursory reading. And Soharwardy, despite the deserved opprobrium he earned himself, substantially succeeded in his objective. Any newspaper or magazine publisher who wishes to run a story that could even unreasonably be interpreted as criticizing Islam now knows that he may be subject to the years of persecution and ruinous debts that Levant faced, no matter how pure his intentions or how scrupulously accurate the article is.
In other words, Soharwardy has given journalists across Canada reason to be terrified of writing about Islam. That tactic has a well-worn, but nonetheless indispensable name. Terrorism has found a witting accomplice in Canada's Kafkaesque grey tribunals.